Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Turkey is extremely rectangular—but not as much as Egypt, Lethoso, and Ghana.
Following last week’s failed coup in Turkey, David Barry noticed an awful lot of friends airing their armchair geopolitical analyses on Facebook. One posted a map of the country accompanied by this observation: "Say what you will about Turkey, it is a remarkably rectangular country."
Barry, a Perth-based programmer and digital mapmaker, took that remark and ran with it, to astonishingly nerdy lengths: He devised a method of ranking more than 200 countries, principalities, republics and nation-states according to rectangularity. Pretty scientific stuff here: Barry examined the “maximum percentage overlap” between the area within a nation’s borders and a “rectangle of the same area,” according to his personal website. (He also added a disclaimer related to the digital files smoothly outlining each country’s shape—essentially, objects may be less rectangular in real life than they appear here.)
Which countries crack the top ten, according to Barry’s analysis? In order, and shown below: Egypt, Vatican City, Sint Maarten, Lethoso, Yemen, Ghana, Macedonia, Cote d’Ivoire, Poland, and Nauru. (Turkey comes in at 15th place.)
These squarish places are a mix of landlocked (or mostly landlocked) states, like Poland or Macedonia, or enclaves like Vatican City or Lethoso. Two are islands. And several are nations with arbitrary borders drawn by outsiders, which could help explain why they’re also riddled with conflict. The outlines of many African countries were determined almost entirely “without consideration for those actually living there,” according to Reuters, by European colonial powers in the early 20th century. The legacy of this continues to spark conflict and secessionist movements around the continent. The straight borders of many Middle Eastern countries tell a similar story—they’re largely the result of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, in which new borders created by English and French aristocratic statesmen “did not correspond to the actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions on the ground,” according to the BBC. Needless to say, problems related to those nuanced distinctions haven’t gone away.
Not that rectangularity necessarily yields conflict. “In general I am skeptical
of that sort of cross-country statistical analysis,” Barry tells CityLab via email. Nor does wiggliness (yes, that’s the proper term) lead to stability and peace. In the bottom ten of Barry’s ranking are a collection of island nations: the Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Cape Verde, Solomon Island, Bahamas, Seychelles, Indonesia, Kiribati, and Tonga—a roll-call of several of the world’s most vulnerable places as sea levels rise. Sometimes, it’s good to be square.
For interactive fun with straight-lined borders, head over to Barry’s site.